My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister who lived in the pastoral town of Aurora, Missouri, with his wife Janey. It’s a quaint little farming community (think Mayberry) in an area of the state now famous for the chaos of Nashville Lite, better known as Branson.
My dad would take us to visit Grandpa and Grandma once or twice a year, as our family boarded a Frisco rail car out of Oklahoma City that stopped in Aurora on its eastern run. If you have never experienced a night journey on a passenger train, you’ve missed something special.
Grandpa was one of the links in the chain of influence that led me into writing. Specifically, it was the sight of him and Grandma Janey sitting in their study at their big, facing mahogany desks and writing letters or sermons that stuck in my memory.
A quiet focus
Occasionally catching the other’s eye over their twin Royal manual typewriters, they were surrounded by rows of antique, glass-doored bookcases. There I was first introduced to James Fenimore Cooper’s books, like The Last of the Mohicans, and I found the whole experience of the books, Grandpa, Grandma, the desks, typewriters, and bookcases to be riveting.
Quiet reflections taking place in a cozy setting overlooking a vegetable garden on a sunny afternoon or moonlit evening.
As I retrace those memories tonight, I realize my wife Anne and I are replicating that pastoral setting of Grandpa’s study, but we’re doing it 21st Century-style in our living room, writing and occasionally catching each other’s glance – over our outstretched legs on which sit digital laptops.
No more Royals, just an HP and a Gateway instead. No more clacking of the cast iron key faces striking the paper and roller, just the nearly inaudible sound of our laptop keys striking … nothing. Not much need for rows of bookcases when you have the vast resources of the Internet at your command and resting upon your lap.
The magic of Grandpa’s study is gone.
The quandary of multitasking
Up until a few minutes ago, Anne and I were doing our laptop work while catching glances and while watching 20/20 on TV. All of us today know this scene as multitasking, and we’re getting pretty adept at it. The ability to do two or three things at once has become vitally important to many sojourners in the world of the virtual unknown.
In fact, I was leafing through an alumni magazine of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism today and found an article alerting readers to “25 Newhouse Alums to Watch,” as their careers are apparently soaring. In an interview with one of these 25 best and brightest, the young grad was asked what was the most valuable lesson that she learned in the journalism school.
Her answer was multitasking.
Back to the scene tonight in my living room. I am reminded that there are times with Anne that multitasking is not such a great idea. It only works well when:
- Both of us are doing it at the same time.
- Anne doesn’t want to engage me in conversation.
If she wants to talk and I want to multitask (ie. write and converse at the same time), things get dicey. Anne is big on eye-contact, and I haven’t yet learned how to train one eye on the screen while having the other wander over to her.
It’s at this point where Anne disagrees with me, however.
She believes she is the one who can multitask better than I, finding me too focused on the laptop itself to engage her. It’s a touchy debate, but I can see where we’re both right. Her idea of multitasking is to stop typing for a moment while she engages me in conversation; mine is to do both at the same time. I can see, though, how I’m sometimes less than convincing that I’m paying her as much attention as the computer.
In this, I doubt she and I are much different from other husbands and wives. I wonder how many arguments have erupted over multitasking? Maybe it isn’t so different as when our dads were reading the newspaper at the breakfast table while, on the other side of the large printed page, sat a frustrated wife.
It’s the principle
One might think — since the laptop screen is much smaller, hence the spouse so easy to see — the problem would be solved. Alas, such is not the case. I assume that the friction would even develop if the multitasking involved something as small as a Droid or i-Phone screen.
The principle is the same for the one insisting on eye contact: Without it, kiss the chat goodbye. And while you’re at it, kiss the good-night kiss goodbye.
Real interpersonal conversation remains old-fashioned. For best effect it requires the ability of each person to single-task. That’s not easy to do in this post-modern world.
Too many times we equate single-tasking with inefficiency.
Man in a hurry
If you’re a fan of TV Land’s ubiquitous The Andy Griffith Show, you may recall an episode called Man in a Hurry where a cigar-puffing businessman, barreling his way to Raleigh, is delayed
when his car breaks down in Mayberry on a Sunday and Gomer is asked to fix it quickly.
The multitasking executive is exasperated to think he has to endure a lazy afternoon on Andy’s front porch with Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bee instead of getting on with his important business in the city.
Exasperated, that is, until he falls under the charm of being rather than doing. He finds, in a 1960s way, that being requires the ease of single-tasking even if that task is simply enjoying a simple moment of simplicity.
The magic moment
When I see that episode, I think of my grandparents in their study where the most important time in the world to them seemed to be the moment they were in. And then I think about how far we’ve come from that; how we think the moment is wasted if we aren’t multitasking.
I know we can’t turn back the clock, but it would be nice just to turn back the laptop occasionally; leave it home on weekends or while we’re on vacation, and spend a little time just enjoying the beauty of the moment engaging family and friends.
I think we can do it if we can convince ourselves that, as smart as a computer is, we can be even smarter. At least as smart as my grandparents were back in Aurora.